14 October, 2014

Leaf-mining

It's that time of year when people like picking things off vegetation, and it's no different for lepidopterists. Leaf-mines (feeding chambers created by the larvae of insects) are at their most apparent in autumn as caterpillars feed-up before pupating in leaf-litter, ready to emerge next spring.

In the world of moths, leaf-mines are highly regarded. The patterns created and the tree species with which the mine is associated are unique to each species, meaning that larval workings provide the most hassle-free method of identifying many otherwise problematic groups (i,e. genus Stigmella & Phyllonorycter).

Some are harder to find than others, but rummage through a large deciduous tree and you'll quickly tally up a good list of species...

Stigmella tityrella on Beech

Stigmella oxyacanthella on Hawthorn

Stigmella hybnerella on Hawthorn

Stigmella anomalella on Rose

Leaf-mining at the foot of the Malvern Hills

It was foggy

30 September, 2014

September on Skokholm

All good things have to come to an end, and I left Skokholm on a calm, crisp Monday morning boat bound for a second year of University. It's been an indescribable three months of volunteering, seabird ringing, moth-trapping, rarity-finding, star-gazing, (attempted) DIY and general good times, and I've met many great folk along the way to keep in touch with over the coming years.

After becoming accustomed to the simple life on a tiny, isolated island, I half expected 'civilisation' to be a punch in the guts. On the contrary, it's surprising how quickly one becomes re-accustomed to flushing toilets, showers and washing machines. I don't know where to start when it comes to summarising it all, so here are some photos from my last month on the island. Daily updates from throughout the seabird season can all be found on the warden's blog, and I've just popped a hell of a lot of photos from the stay up onto Flickr, so feel free to take a look at them.

Looking up at Crab Bay, where the Puffins used to be.

I guided a group of marine biologists to the bottom of some magnificent cliffs, where they then proceeded to name and survey every seaweed on every rock.
They didn't stop at seaweeds though- this is Anurida maritima, a springtail which walks on the surface of rockpools! I am easily excited.
The only beach on Skokholm- but boy is it a beach.

Home for the past three months
I'm desperately missing the 360 degree views that can be had from the top of Spy Rock. The sunsets over the Irish Sea were phenomenal.

In terms of bird action, it was hard to match the run of scarcities we enjoyed during early-September (Icterine Warbler, Ortolan Bunting, Common Rosefinch, Wryneck). Migrants continued to make landfall throughout the rest of the month, with the Swallow passage during my last week definitely ranking as one of the best experiences. Many 10,000's of birds powered straight in off the Irish Sea each day, and understandably some were a bit thirsty after their travels.

Looking West from the southern tip of the island, you could actually watch the Swallows coming in off the sea. Magnificent. 

At night, Manx Shearwater fledgelings carpeted the main path network. They were extremely clumsy, and would often find themselves in awkward places (inside buildings, on top of roofs or trees) in their search for a high point to take-off from. Inevitably, confused and ill birds would venture out during the day, making easy meals for the Great Black-backed Gulls.

Whinchat

Tree Pipit

Spotted Flycatcher

11 September, 2014

Wryneck!

We've finally cashed in on the recent Wryneck influx, with a very showy individual frequenting the cliffs around Crab Bay where Puffins arrived with sand-eels only last month...

Wryneck

Migrants, including various Spotted Flycatchers, are scattered across the Skokholm cliffs at the moment.

The last Fulmar chick fledged back on Sunday, and only a few stragglers now frequent the cliffs.

06 September, 2014

Icterine and Ortolan

Icterine Warbler

It's amazing how quickly the bird migration mindset takes over daily island thinking as September arrives. It seems like a lifetime ago that I was looking for colour-ringed Puffins in Crab Bay, or snoozing on a cliff-top listening to the wind-blown calls of desperate Guillemots chicks. Instead, I now find myself in a weird but excited rarity-fuelled trance, waking-up extra early for the possibility that a 'yank' wader might be feeding on North Pond, or a scarce warbler skulking near one of the Heligolands. Whilst it's hard not to miss the mellow seabird months of summer (even if that did coincide with the busiest time of year for guests!), autumn brings its own sense of excitement, with endless birding possibilities (given the right weather).

The first week of September has yet to end, but things are already looking exciting on the rare bird front- I was lucky enough to find an Icterine Warbler during my morning rounds of the island back on Tuesday. Despite being half-asleep at the time, there was little mistaking the striking tones and bulky size of a Hippolais warbler, almost dwarfing the Sedge Warbler sitting next to it in the same bush, and ten minutes later all island folk were enjoying views of the little beauty as it made its way through an Elder, often coming out into the open to catch flies with several Spotted Flycatchers and a Redstart feeding nearby.




Fast-forward to yesterday and a cracking Ortolan Bunting turned up at the Farm, showing brilliantly throughout the day to all. The string of scarcities continued today, with a Common Rosefinch trapped and ringed early in the afternoon. The 'commoner' migrants have been just as exciting to watch however, with small arrivals of Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat, Stonechat, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Yellow Wagtail frequenting the cliffs and coastal paths. What a fantastic time of year!

Ortolan Bunting

Common Rosefinch

Pied Flycatcher

Redstart

01 September, 2014

With Fulmars

Back at the start of July I took up the reins in the island's Fulmar breeding productivity project, a study which involved walking the North coast cliffs daily and noting the stage of progress of a pre-selected bunch of Fulmar nests.

Fast forward a month, and it's now become more of a daily emotional challenge than a productivity study, as scruffy balls of fluff gain feathers and begin to turn into pristine, ocean-bound flying machines. It's been nothing less than magical watching the adult-chick interactions of a bird I only ever previously shrugged off as an overgrown Herring Gull lookalike.

15 days old

36 days old

43 days old

53 days old- ready to go to hit the ocean





As of today, 22 chicks have already fledged, and the final six will no doubt leave in the coming week, following in the wake of the now departed Puffins and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The cliffs just won't be the same without these mellow, majestic beauties flying around my head...


25 August, 2014

Migrants

Despite the breezy conditions, a recent flowering of Golden-rod has attracted an impressive number of migrant butterflies to Skokholm. The first Clouded Yellow of the year joined dozens of Painted Ladies and Red Admirals already nectaring on the flowers a couple of days ago, further emphasising the current colour scheme across the island...

Clouded Yellow

Painted Lady

Red Admiral

It's an exciting time of year, with migrant birds also beginning to pass through. The last couple of days have seen Garganey, Osprey, Pied Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit and a Water Rail turn up, and everyone is feeling a sense of anticipation for what could be lurking in the next bush.

This Pied Flycatcher was sheltering on a cliff face below me whilst I watched the last few Puffins enter their burrows with fish. Not a pair that often come into the same binocular view.

13 August, 2014

Hurricanes and Convolvulus Hawk-moths

The tail end of hurricane Bertha hit Skokholm on Saturday night as forecasted, bringing with it some pretty impressive weather. The wind and rain combination was relentless for the best part of a 24 hour period; filling up the ponds, stirring up a huge sea swell and leaving the island with a completely new 'autumnal' feel about it that I haven't previously experienced.

The wildlife has also made a noticeable turn to the autumnal, with an "interestingly large hawk-moth" found inside one of the observatory's heligoland bird traps by our 'stranded' guest ringer yesterday morning. Walking into the kitchen to find a Convolvulus Hawk-moth staring back at me from the inside of a pint glass is certainly one of the more surreal wildlife encounters I've experienced, but I'm not complaining... it's one of my dream moths!



12 August, 2014

Tebenna micalis



Tebenna micalis

Continuing the recent run of island moth 'firsts', Tebenna micalis was a surprising find in a small, sheltered coastal gully a couple of days ago. As well as being a notably scarce migrant to Britain, it has also got to be one of the most beautifully pattered moths I've come across yet- lovely iridescent markings and a wing-shape shared by no other British species.

The South Haven gully stream is a gem of a spot to search for rare invertebrates on Skokholm- tucked away off the main track, sheltered from harsh westerlies and flourishing with Common Fleabane (the larval foodplant of Tebenna micalis!) and Water Mint- I could (and do) spend all day in there.

09 August, 2014

Island update


With the passing of July comes the inevitable drop in seabird activity on the Skokholm cliffs. The auks have been disappearing from their breeding ledges since mid-July, but I still wasn't quite ready for the complete exodus of Guillemots and Razorbills that has taken place so abruptly, with the last couple of chicks fledging last week.

It's hard to imagine that only a couple of weeks back I was spending much of the dark hours on the moonlit cliff-tops, watching on in awe as Guillemot chicks reluctantly threw themselves towards the beckoning calls of their parents sat hundreds of feet below on the water. It was magical to watch, but also horrifying at times. I couldn't help but grit my teeth at the sounds made as chicks jumped off their small, awkward ledges- bouncing off boulders on their way down and often falling into seemingly inescapable crevices, only to reappear moments later by their parent's side; both birds wasting no time in quickly swimming out into the open ocean.

Their absence has left the coastal paths eerily quiet, with only the odd noisy Chough or alarm-calling Common Sandpiper to accompany the sound of waves beating against the shear cliffs. Rock Pipits still flit about amongst the last of the summer's flowering Sea Campion- most pairs having now fledged young- whilst the beautifully scented Sea Mayweed has acted as a convenient food source for hoverflies and other invertebrates, many no doubt newly arrived in off the sea.







With the Puffins and Manxies at their most active during July, the Farm has been brimming with visiting guests, photographers and ringers. July mornings were very much dedicated to the general maintenance tasks needed to keep the island looking in shape, but with the toilets (and various other facilities!) emptied and cleaned by mid-morning, the rest of the days could be spent ringing Puffins, gulls & Manxies, helping out with various Storm-petrel monitoring projects or just appreciating walking the coast.

It is sad to watch as the cliffs empty of seabirds, but on the other hand it's exciting to be able to look forward to the possibilities that late-summer and autumn will hold for migrant birds and moths. The likes of Cory's Shearwater and Short-eared Owl have already turned up so far this month, and new moths for the island database are disturbed from the cliffs on a daily basis.









Sitting here outside the cottage (the same cottage outside which Ronald Lockley carried out some of the world's first seabird studies back in the 1930s), clinging on to the little internet connection available whilst listening to Manxies calling all around me in the darkness, it's surprisingly hard to fully summarise the first month's worth of island life. Try as I might, I can't find the right words to describe the character of the island during high-summer; character shaped not only by the fantastic bird fauna and the awe-inspiring landscape, but also by the different folk I find myself mingling with week after week, each sharing the same relatable passion for remote places and nature, and each bringing with them a refreshing element of knowledge and enthusiasm to the observatory.


It's an exciting time of year, and we've got a potentially epic week of Lighthouse seawatching ahead of us if this storm hits. Watch this space and keep up with the Skokholm Blog!

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